Lockdown life – day 22…

Wow, day 22. 22 days since the quarantine officially began; since my letter from the NHS dropped on the mat. 22 days since the restrictions necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19 formally began; and since our lives changed for the time being.

Of course, it’s easy for me to cope. I don’t have to go out to work; I don’t need to worry about whether I can manage without my wages; I don’t have to concern myself with keeping children occupied or with the fear which accompanies having a loved one ill or hospitalised. I’m not fearing for someone close who has to work in the NHS, or in a care home, coping with a shortage of PPE. I’m not living alone in a small flat, or living on edge with an abusive partner. And my heart goes out to those who do.

In my fortunate position, I spend lots of time writing about the response of the Government to this pandemic. My opinions, like my place on the political spectrum, are no secret to anyone who knows me! So today, I’ll try and provide a lighter note to life in the village of Lockdown-by-the-Sea.

Our view across the Wear Valley.

We’re lucky enough to live in an attractive village in the south of County Durham, with a house which looks across one of the loveliest parts of the Wear Valley. From various viewpoints, for those who are familiar with this part of the world, we can see the golf course at Bishop Auckland, Thomas Wright’s Observatory at Westerton, Binchester, Newfield, Durham Cathedral, the railway viaduct at Browney, Willington, Oakenshaw – in an almost 180 degree view. On a really clear day, with binoculars, we can just about make out the Taj Mahal in one direction and the Golden Gate Bridge in the other….

This morning, Irene abandoned me as she was busy in her sewing loft, making headbands for nursing staff. Yes, I know the clamour is for face masks; but many staff find the elastic around the ears, not surprisingly, to be quite uncomfortable, so someone’s had the bright idea of a headband, with buttons attached for the elastic on the mask! Clever, eh! And my wife, being a handy kind of girl, took to her Pfaff (it’s a sewing machine, don’tcha know) to produce some.

Headbands for nurse comfort!

Sitting quite comfortably reading a biography of Charles de Gaulle, I was gripped by a fancy for some fresh air. This doesn’t happen to me often. When it does, I find it pays to act quickly…

So, I took the bold decision to go outside. Of course, still being under house arrest, I checked with the authorities and was given a visa to travel.

Sitting on the garden seat, it was a lovely moment to take in the view, and to bask for an hour in the warm morning air. The breeze is barely noticeable, but touches the early day with it’s gentle caress. It’s a quiet morning; hardly any traffic, and few people, so the soundtrack is provided by the birds, with vocal accompaniment by a dog barking in the distance, and the occasional murmur of the bees dipping in and out of the flowers in the garden.

It’s such a pleasure to drink in the scene. Yet over to my right, the gravestones hold a solemn vigil over the cemetery’s dead. It introduce a solemn thought amongst the pleasant ones; a sobering reminder that those resting there are being joined every day by new recruits in this army of the dead.

In another field six or seven horses graze in peaceful enjoyment, while beyond them, the sun bathes the roofs of Railway Terrace, one of the few reminders of the long forgotten Hunwick Station. But I remember it, with its Signal Box, and platforms. It closed in 1964, when I was only six years old, but the remnants hung around for long enough for it to be part of our playground, to be part of my childhood. And once it was much more; a Signal Box and signals, white crossing gates, waiting room and ticket office; the fine Station Masters house, which nowadays with Railway Terrace is the only remaining witness here to the once great network of veins which kept this Country alive.

Hunwick Station – the Station Hotel on the right. (The ‘Monkey’)

I hear the train a’rollin…

I ponder too that along the bottom of the valley, hidden from view, and is the track of the old railway line, and that between 1857 and 1964, the heady clouds of white steam would have announced the progress of trains as they sped from Bishop Auckland, through Willington, Brancepeth, Brandon and on to Durham. And just beyond the old line, the gentle ribbon of the River Wear is making it’s steady way along to Durham and beyond to the turmoil of the North Sea; but here, on a day such as this, it’s a benign companion, carrying no more than leaves, twigs and the occasional branch along with it.

Away over on the far slopes of the valley, large hay bales, arranged in huge blocks, stand like pillboxes, vigilant and ready. There too, the large farm at Binchester Whins sleeps, with it collection of barns, byres and the farmhouse. The sun breathes warmly on the roofs, and makes the red bricks and grey barn doors stand out against the lush green of the fields around it.

I remember a day, many years ago and very like today, when I called at that farmhouse when I was working for the Council. No-one answered the back door, so I walked around the side and through an open barn to the front. The front door was open, it was a warm sunny day very much like today. No-one answered my knock; I called ‘hello’ several times with no more response. Obviously they were busy in the fields somewhere. So I turned to leave, at which point the biggest meanest looking mastiff appeared in the hall and, growling menacingly (growling tends to be menacing in my experience), began to run to the door. I didn’t think showing my I.D. card was going to be much use, so I copied the dog and started running too. As I ran along the front of the farmhouse and turned through the barn, I could tell by the way my arse was shivering that this bloody thing behind me, a creature not unlike the Hound of the Baskervilles, was gaining on me. Fortunately my cool head and analytical brain decided to act independently, and abandoned me completely, and in one of the more stupidly desperate acts of my life (one of several I might add), and with the dog only about three feet off my backside, (hadn’t it heard of social distancing?) I stopped, turned, and shouted at the dog, ‘Sit!’ I’ve never seen anything look more surprised. Then again, I couldn’t see my own face. The dog stopped, and like a Crufts contender, promptly settled back on it’s substantial haunches. With the determined tone of authority which only comes from either:

(a) many years experience in command of troops under combat conditions, or:

(b) well-honed terror,

I ordered the animal to ‘Stay!’ As I backed away, never taking my eyes off his, I began to realise that it looked so pliant and submissive that it probably wasn’t going to bite me – it probably just wanted to play. But who the hell’s going to take the chance with a dog this big? And this, of all days, I didn’t have my whip and dining chair with me…. So I backed off until I could get to the car and retreat to safety. For all I know, the poor dog might still be sitting there. Happy days.

On the top of the hill across the valley, the road spins along the horizon, carrying occasional star-points of light as the sun, now climbing higher, glints on the cars as they go, their occupants oblivious to being picked out and observed. A flight of racing pigeons wheel across the sky, then vector away to the west, and I notice a black cat, with a distinctive white throat creeping towards the daffodils which fringe the small green, crouching as it senses prey. And I’m prodded out of my musings – time for coffee!

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